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WASHINGTON -- It has become an article of faith among many federal and especially state policy makers that the United States cannot possibly improve the performance of its higher education system without a significantly better way of collecting data about the performance of individual students and colleges. Advocates for better data have abandoned the idea of a federal "unit records" system in the face of vocal opposition from private colleges, privacy advocates and many Republican lawmakers.

But the notion that an alternative could potentially emerge by developing state student data systems and stitching them together into a "national" network has taken hold with widespread backing (and in many cases funding) from the Obama administration, leading foundations, and policy groups -- so much so that many critics have largely resigned themselves to the prospect that they are a done deal.

Student aid legislation that the U.S. Senate could unveil as soon as this week would, like a comparable measure that the House of Representatives passed this month, give states significant financial incentives to develop such data systems. But the approach laid out in a draft section of the Senate legislation obtained by Inside Higher Ed would pursue the goal so broadly and aggressively -- by pushing states to collect an enormous array of information about individual students and link it to reams of other personal data -- that even some supporters of the need for data systems fear that it is politically impossible.

Among other things, the proposal would prod states that wish to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to collect data about students' scores on SAT and ACT exams and on tests, like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, that colleges might give their students to measure how much they've learned in college.

"In a non-political world, this approach makes perfect sense," said Travis Reindl, director of state policy and campaigns at CommunicationWorks, a Washington-based firm. "But given how much opposition there is to this, you could look at this as getting greedy" and giving opponents ammunition to fight it.

The legislative language in question was included in a document described as an early glimpse at the Senate's version of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which is designed to carry out the Obama administration's proposal to end the guaranteed student loan program and use the savings to ratchet up spending on Pell Grants and a range of other education programs.

One major new aspect of the administration's plan is the proposed establishment of a fund to encourage colleges and states to increase the enrollment and graduation of students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds and others who are underrepresented in higher education. The bill the House passed this month would create a $3 billion College Access and Completion Challenge Fund, and state recipients of the grants can use the money for, among other purposes, expanding data systems designed to track students' academic performance.

The Senate document lays out an alternative version for a $4.25 billion fund for college access, persistence and completion. Several people familiar with the document said they believed that members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions had already distanced themselves from some of the most controversial ideas in the document, including the proposed creation of State Higher Education Planning Councils that would be charged with developing statewide plans to improve college access and completion.

But one aspect of the Senate draft that is unlikely to change significantly, according to several people familiar with it, deals with "expanding statewide longitudinal data systems." Under the plan, states that seek to compete for funds through the program would have to assure that the data systems they create include all public postsecondary institutions in the state (private institutions could be included if they choose, but not required to participate) and that the systems collect information on each individual student's:

  • Secondary school record, including graduation date and scores on college entrance tests (like SAT, ACT, AP or International Baccalaureate exams).
  • Financial status.
  • Entry and exit from colleges.
  • Higher education progress and performance, including remedial course placement, credit completion, time to degree, receipt of degrees and certificates, and "performance on nationally validated assessments of postsecondary learning or value-added measures of postsecondary learning, if available."
  • Job placement, postsecondary earnings, and attainment of industry credentials.

States would also have to be able to disaggregate their data systems by "secondary school, postsecondary educational institution, race, ethnicity, gender, disability status, migrant status, English proficiency, and status as economically disadvantaged."

In addition, they would have to match the information in their postsecondary data systems not only with pre-kindergarten-12th grade data, but with a long list of other state systems, including those for "workforce development, unemployment insurance, child welfare, juvenile justice, military services information, and migrant student records."

Advocates for student-level data systems, like Peter Ewell, vice president at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems and co-author of a recent paper on "The Ideal State Postsecondary Data System," applauded the general direction of the Senate legislation and said it would encourage states to move their data systems toward the best existing systems, like Florida's.

He said that unlike alternative proposals that Senate leaders had reportedly encouraged, which would have sought to prod states into folding postsecondary education data systems into existing ones for elementary and secondary school students, the current Senate plan "doesn't disturb the integrity of existing postsecondary data systesm by merging them" with K-12 systems.

Critics of student data systems like Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, say they have long since given up hope that the headlong rush toward state data systems can be stopped or even slowed, given that the Obama administration (with hundreds of millions of dollars it has dedicated to the effort in last winter's economic recovery legislation) has joined the Bush administration in championing the idea.

Even so, Nassirian said he was stunned and disturbed by the "grandiosity of the vision and the massive amount of money" contained in Senate proposal, which other critics described as virtually "cradle to grave." "You'd be hard-pressed to find another tracking system that goes into this level of detail about people, with such loosey goosey access rules," he said.

Nassirian said he is most troubled not by how the Senate legislation envisions using the postsecondary education data and the other personal information with which it would be linked, but how future Congresses might. "These will become the data marts of choice for activities that we would not endorse today," he said. "If you build it, the [Federal Bureau of Investigation] will come looking for criminals. The military will come looking to recruit. [Health and Human Services] will come looking for deadbeat dads.

"It's not a question of, who's against research, better alignment and better policy? It's that plugging the entire nation into a data tracking system creates, in the name of research, a consequential tracking system for Americans."

State policy experts like Reindl think that such fears are deeply exaggerated -- but also that the Senate proposal, as currently framed, would give unnecessary ammunition to critics by going much further than it needs to.

"It has taken us more than 15 years to really get the public agenda in this country focused on completing college," he said. "And now that that agenda has finally taken hold, they seem to be shooting the moon. We know how these data discussions go, especially when they're had in Washington. It's likely to create an unnecessary distraction."

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